The search for home
Adoption can be a highly effective solution to great difficulties in the birth parents’ lives and is often a positive and nourishing experience, giving a child the chance to grow up within a loving family system. In this way it offers a way to support a child that may not have been possible for the birth parents, either personally or financially. In other words it appears to be an elegant solution to a complex and sometimes urgent problem.
However, the deepest human need is to belong and adoption can create challenging inner questions connected to that innate need: “Who am I? To whom do I belong? Why was I not good enough to keep? Where do I belong?” These existential questions can resolve, or may linger and limit life, love and the world of work.
The experience of adoption – for the adoptive parents, for the child themselves and for their birth parents – is outside the realm of experience of most people and comes with its own set of unique dynamics. This article explores some of the complex dynamics around adoption and also offers some insights, from a systemic perspective, that may be useful when searching for resolution.
Adopted in ways that support the flow of life
When a child or young adult is adopted in a way that respects and acknowledges the place of their natural birth parents, they can flourish. There are many many success stories from many countries and cultures in multiple contexts.
Additionally, where a child is adopted by parents who either cannot, or choose not to, have their own children, this can be especially settling for the adopted child.
If the adoptive parents give a place in their hearts to the birth parents who gave their child to them, then the adopted child can hold an inner statement, an inner ‘sentence for life’ something like this: “I have double the resources of others… I am loved twice over.” In these circumstances there is much less need to search for completion; they have all the resources they need and can live fully.
Many adult children of adoptive parents feel like this and do well in life, in love and at work, for when a child is adopted in a way that respects and gives a place to their natural parents they can do well. No one is excluded and everyone has a place.
The system has integrity and so does the child.
These children often grow up to feel deeply resourced, are able to work in multiple systems and are often happy and generous with their love and affection.
“As an adopted child I thrive on the gift of multiplicities of belonging. This has been manifest in my life and work, enabling me to relate to, work across and work with diverse cultures and organisations.”
Adopted in ways that entangle and limit
Life for an adopted child can become complex especially if they become entangled through a lack of appropriate and respectful acknowledgment of their origins. This happens when the adoptive parents in some way assume the ‘first position’ in the system, above the birth parents – either explicitly or implicitly. This can happen in a number of ways. For example by forbidding mention of the birth parents, or the opposite, by talking a lot about what a good decision it was they made to give up their child. How it was the ‘right’ thing to have done and how all the adults agreed to this sense of rightness. Within this context an adopted child may grow into a young adult who really struggles to find their identity or meaning in life, to build successful intimate relationships or to find their place of belonging in social and professional systems.
Other patterns that result in difficulties include when partners secretly hope to resolve something difficult or incomplete between them by adopting a child. Or perhaps they adopt in a patronising way that is an outward show of ‘care’. Or they do not fully grieve their own loss of a child or the ability to create children and ‘go shopping’ to buy a child, hoping this will resolve the issue.
As a result of unspoken or unresolved dynamics emerging from these and other complex dynamics and contexts an adopted person may hold inner ‘life sentences’, that can include:
“I am very angry at being given away…”
“I don’t know where I’m from and therefore who I am…”
“I have no place, I don’t belong…” “I am not good enough to keep…”
“I was not and am still not for sale….”
“I can never find my place in life or an organisation…”
This article describes and illuminates some of the limiting dynamics that can be present in adoption and offers some paths to a more settled system.
“If adopting for both the adoptive parents, is a conscious act of respect and love – for their own relationship, the birth parents and the adopted child – then life and love can flow.”
“My birth parents gave me the gift of life. Then I was given as a gift and I was received as a gift. As a result I have a great deal to give. I do so willingly, with love.”
‘We are your true parents’
If the adoptive Mum and Dad want the adopted child to see them as though they were the only parents in their system, this can cause a deep inner conflict for the adopted child. For example when the explicit or unspoken message is something like “We have taken care of you from a young age, so we are your real parents. You should only look at us…” this can lead to an inner split in the adopted child.
An assertion of being the ‘true’ or ‘only’ parents is inaccurate and sets the child up to struggle with the idea of looking for their biological parents but in fear that they will lose their adoptive parents, as punishment, if they do.
In that case they would experience being given away twice over.
✣ For the Mum and Dad who take this approach they are getting out of the natural order of things, in effect attempting to take the birth mother and father’s place. However, the place of the adoptive parents is after the biological mother and father, not less than, simply after.
✣ All children are bonded to their biological parents through their genes and their family system dynamics. This means that knowing what is in their ancestral lines, when possible, gives them the opportunity to grow and make their own choices.
✣ We bond to our parents overtly or covertly. Blind love or open eyed love is a choice. When we cannot bond overtly sometimes what is left to bond to is the pain and we may do so quite unconsciously. This is why parents are important to us exactly the way they are. They carry clues to our fate or destiny depending on which one we choose.
“Back then you really gave up your place. Contact was not allowed, it was illegal. Thankfully this has changed now.”
A path to connection
✣ If the Mum, for example, has gratitude towards the biological mother and gives her a place (in her heart) then she can more easily be available to the adopted child in a balanced way. By the Mum giving the birth mother her rightful place the child is prompted (and allowed) to do the same. Then the adopted child will often carry a sense of gratitude rather than a sense of abandonment.
✣ The same is true for the Dad. If he has gratitude towards the biological father and mother and gives them a place in his heart then he can be more easily available to the adopted child in a true and useful way. By the Dad giving the birth father and mother their rightful places the children are again prompted to do the same.
✣ For adopted children it may be enough to acknowledge their birth parents in simple true ways: “I have the same eyes / similar hair / sense of humour as my parents – I do have something and I welcome it as a part of me.” In these and other ways adoptees can become free to fully be themselves, knowing that they are a product of someone who is honoured, appreciated and included.
“The place of the adoptive parents is after the biological mother and father, not less than, simply after.”
‘You can’t survive without us’
Sometimes adoptive parents try and give too much to the adopted child. This is often an attempt to distract the child from the simple facts of their origins or to reassure them that they belong and are worth keeping.
✣ The implicit sentence in the system – “You can’t survive without us” – is therefore often connected to and comes from this one: “We are afraid you will leave us and go back to them”. This can however send a difficult message: “What you come from is not good….” And so turn into a kind of ‘life sentence’, internalised by the child as: “I was not good enough to keep…/ My parents were not good enough…./ I am not good enough”.
✣ This pattern is sometimes driven by a desire to show family and friends that the adoptive parents’ decision to adopt was ‘right’ and ‘successful’.
✣ If Mum or Dad are frightened of the child ‘looking’ at or for his/her natural parents they may create a dilemma and inner split for the child. These adoptive parents may sometimes show up as either judgmental or needy, clinging or telling him/her that they will do anything for them. Or strongly suggesting that he/she will be disappointed. It’s as if they are embodying the inner statement: “If you only look at me as your mother and/or me as you father, then everything will be OK”.
✣ Sometimes these adoptive parents come from a background where they were not nurtured as children and didn’t have someone who loved them. If so they might look to the adopted child to fulfill this unmet need.
✣ Sometimes adoptive parents may have lost a child and expect the adopted one to heal the wound.
✣ There may be missing children in their family line who are not spoken about and they bring in adopted children to represent the missing.
✣ This pattern sets up the adoptive parents as big and powerful – or weak and needy. In either case the hidden need is to keep the child small – as though they are not capable or as though they may be irreparably damaged if they try and grow up, or leave.
✣ This dynamic places an unhealthy burden on the child and is one form of parentification, where the child feels they should take care of their parents in some unspoken way.
✣ Unable to feel free to look at or for their birth parents, the adopted child may grow up to feel trapped, resentful and bitter, feeling unable to tap into the source of their life for strength and connection, and somehow indebted to their parents’ unmet needs.
A possible solution
✣ If the adoptive parents can allow the natural birth parents to be the first in the system and try seeing that the adopted child has more – a set of biological parents and a set of adoptive parents – then everyone in the system can find their true place and settle.
✣ When the adoptive parents can see their role as being part of a remarkable love story then this also allows the child to feel chosen, to be able to envisage a destiny and to understand that the best adventures need two things: life and support – and they have received both. In this way the adoptive parents can consider that they are instrumental in the creation of a remarkable lifetime that may take patience but may also pay wonderful dividends.
✣ The Mum and Dad might also try seeing that with love the adopted child can break the cycle of difficulty that existed for the biological parents. In essence they may be the ones to write a wonderful new chapter in the family. She/he could then be seen as a great gift and could see their life as a great gift.
✣ The way to do this mindfully is to remind the child of all they received from their parents. Life, brains, skills, genetic patterns, health etc. and then it can become a ‘together adventure’ as the adoptive parents and the child build on what’s there.
✣ It may also be important for the child to know what might be laid to rest with acknowledgment and respect and what they might want to begin with gratitude and motivation. He/she could see their life as a great gift and a gift to the world and their community and family, and no over-giving by the Mum and Dad would be necessary.
✣ Mum and Dad might also explain to the adopted child (and to themselves) that this child is special simply because she/he was wanted enough to be born and was wanted enough to adopt, grow and nurture and she/he might take that as inspiration for a remarkable and successful life.
Looking back into the wider system to understand
It is often useful for adopted children who have a question about why their mother gave them away to look, with compassion, at the wider system around their mother’s life, circumstances and what she may have been trying to protect the child from.
For example, it may be that the mother was abused by her father, uncle or other member of her family system. When she has a son she keeps him but decides to give daughters away for adoption, to ensure their safety. Years later when her daughters track her down and ask why she gave them up for adoption, she may feel ashamed to tell them about her own abuse and the reasons she gave her daughters away.
In this example it’s clear that the ‘giving away’ of a child was an act of love, born out of a need to keep the child safe. A difficult decision that would also have cost the mother a great deal.
This is one example of the many hidden dynamics around the decision to give a child away, an example in which both mother and child pay a price. Many of the reasons for adoption however are never shared or even known by others.
‘Help us stay together’
In some situations, a child is adopted by a couple with unresolved issues between them or in the unspoken hope that a child will help them enjoy and share a common task.
✣ If the child is used as glue it will not go well for any of them. The child feels stuck between Mum and Dad and the child has to get too ‘big’ for their true place in the system. This often creates inertia and resentment. This child is also likely to feel burdened by trying to be ‘big’ for everyone, nurturing the parents in the hope that they will see that the child also needs nurturing. When this doesn’t happen the child may feel like they are only good enough to give and they may have great difficulty in receiving later in life.
✣ In some cases the Mum is the one who really wants a child and the Dad goes along with it all for a while, often for years. Later on, particularly if the adopted child is a boy, the father may become distant or aggressive as if to say ‘You are not my real son, I had you so she and I could stay together.’ If the father has another child after this son, the father will favour the one over the other.
✣ In these situations, the mother may end up looking at her adopted son as a surrogate partner, or a man may look at his adopted daughter as a surrogate wife/partner.
A possible solution
✣ For a couple, the adoptive child should come after their love for one another. That is the natural order of things and everyone has their right place in the system. In this way the child can receive nurturing and the couple can give their love to this child and to the parents who created it, even if the circumstances were difficult.
✣ When the couple are able to let the adopted child know that they are strong, united together with the fact that he/she is a gift to them and much wanted, it can take its place.
“If a couple cannot have children and want to fill that gap by taking away a child from other parents, because they are needy, then as a rule they are in for trouble. They will pay for this and very often their relationship is over. To gain a child, they sacrifice the partner.”
“We will show the world we care”
When someone is adopted by a family who adopt out of a hidden or unconscious desire to ‘do good’ or ‘save the world’ you may see children of different cultures being adopted and, for example, dark skinned children being adopted by adults of white skin. This can feel rather like the 19th century Christian missionaries’ whose intention to ‘save the coloured folks’ from implicitly being wrong, helpless or ‘bad’ was experienced by many as patronising.
The inner, unspoken sentence by the adult(s) may be something like this “By taking you in we show the world we care” or “We save children, so we care” or “One child at a time, we will save the world.”
Children who are adopted in this patronising way will often find it very hard to find themselves and their true place in the world, as they know at a deeper level that they have been uprooted. They may become outwardly ‘successful’ in life and work, but also be burning out inwardly in their attempts to individuate and become ‘someone in their own right’ through that success.
Just as in other contexts some adoptive Mums and Dads want to ‘protect’ the child from the ‘bad’ parents who ‘failed’ them or gave them up. This is not helpful to the child, it weakens them and dishonours the birth family in a way that excludes them and so damages the system and the child.
“I knew, deep down. I had always felt ‘a million miles from home’ and sort of ‘removed’.”
“The deepest need we have as human beings is to belong”
“This is my special child”
If a child with special needs is adopted for example by a single mother who already has a natural child from a previous relationship, the mother may favour the adopted child over her natural child or children. This can be motivated by a desire for revenge on the absent father of the natural children, or to show that the adoptive parent is a ‘very good’ or ‘special’ person. When this happens it isolates the natural child or children and puts the adopted child on a pedestal, sometimes in the position of a ‘surrogate spouse’, such is the focus of attention.
The effect of this pattern of relationships is that the natural child or children feel displaced, diminished and the natural order of life in the family system is greatly disturbed. The adopted child also feels the imbalance and may sense it has arrived in a position that doesn’t belong to him/her, causing loneliness and alienation. Amongst the biological children there may be a sense that the adopted child represents what went wrong in the system and they blame this child, who once again feels rejected.
This dynamic can be behind the revenge of the birth child on the adopted child. This is brought dramatically to life in ‘Spectre’, the 2015 James Bond feature film.
In the 2015 film ‘Spectre’ we discover that both of Bond’s parents died when he was a young boy. After he was orphaned a family friend Hannes Oberhauser takes him in and so he becomes a kind of adopted half-brother to Hannes’ existing son.
This boy, Hannes’ birth son, feels that James has displaced him and becomes very jealous of his father’s affection for him. As a result he kills his father and then stages his own death. He grows up to become the arch nemesis to James Bond and adopts a new name, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He goes on to form the organisation ‘Spectre.’
As Blofeld tortures the captured Bond he explains to Bond’s female companion:
“James lost his parents when he was young. My father raised him and soothed the wounds of the poor little blue-eyed orphan, and asked me to treat him as a brother – my little brother!
They formed quite an attachment – I was forced out of my father’s love by James. So, my father’s life had to end.”
He continues, while torturing Bond, repeatedly calling out ‘Cuckoo…Cuckoo!’ referencing the habit of Cuckoos evicting other birds from their nests.
Adoption often goes well for all concerned and there are many successful stories. However, when it doesn’t go well it is often connected to a hidden or secret judgment or exclusion in the system. Perhaps the Mum and Dad struggle with their own feelings of relevance and insecurity especially if the child does really well or really poorly. And/or they turn their back on their adopted child who then suffers a double rejection, another interrupted bond. In these and some other circumstances the adoptee may absent themselves so they cannot be reached, or become violent.
At their most dramatic these difficult feelings, judgments and dynamics can turn to acts of revenge.
Revenge of the adopted child
Adoptive children may take revenge on their adoptive parents when the motives for adopting were patronising or selfish, or when the circumstances of adopting were perpetrating to the birth family of origin.
For example, a child taken out of their country and culture of origin or a child who is not allowed to speak about their birth parents may secretly try and find ways to balance, to express their covert bond with their birth family through disruptive behaviours, rebellion or revenge.
Revenge of the adoptive parents
Adoptive parents who feel they have given too much, not been respected for their hard work, or privately blame the adopted child for a difficulty in their relationship may take revenge on the adopted child.
This can lead to the exclusion of the adopted child or, in the most extreme and disturbing cases to the murder of the child, usually as they enter their teens and start to become independent. This appears to be the case in the example of Asunta Fong Yang, killed at her adoptive parents’ request in 2013. See the link here or in the ‘further reading’ below.
Same sex adoption
Increasingly common is adoption of a child or children by a couple of the same sex. Just as in other contexts this can be a joyful and successful relationship system but it can also present particular challenges.
✣ If the same sex couple are easy with explaining where and how they belong this can often translate into the adopted child being comfortable with the difference. In fact it might be very helpful to the child who can immediately grasp that his/her parents also have a different way of belonging.
✣ In other words when the parents know how and where they belong it can serve as a role model for the child to be comfortable with a different yet potent way of belonging. Instead of seeing themselves as less than, children of same-sex parents can instead see themselves as way-showers, pioneers who are unafraid to be different and yet highly inclusive.
✣ What begins as a potential wound around not belonging might then translate into a deep sense of connection beyond the conventional or norm. These children and their parents might well be the ones who model inclusivity and belonging. Having been there, they might know better than anyone how best to navigate their differences without judgment of those who don’t yet understand it.
In these situations, where the child is unconcerned about the ‘difference’ of their adoptive parents they may:
- Accept the love and feel free to make their own choices
- Be especially good at fitting in, in many different contexts
- Become pioneers in professional fields and social systems
- Feel deeply resourced and able to resource others
✣ On the challenging side, this can translate into an adopted child’s need to belong and an increased sense of isolation due to another difference. They might be angry with Mum/Dad who abandoned them, leaving them to be in such a different place that they have nowhere to feel like they belong or fit in with the ‘norm’. They might also:
- Yearn for the missing gender parent / Be angry at the missing gender parent
- Follow the lifestyle of the same-sex couple to protect their sense of belonging
- Be concerned about defining their own relationship preference for fear of upsetting and losing the adoptive parents
- Reject the biological parents and/or the adoptive parents
- Become perfectionist in order to feel like they are doing enough to belong / Give up, feeling like they can never do enough to belong.
For the same-sex adoptive parents it can be helpful for the child to:
- Talk about the biological parents. Find the strengths in each birth parent (where this is known)
- Be open to the child connecting with the biological parents if there is a desire. This allows the child to feel safe, to find their place and explore their origins without fear of reprisal
- Be open and clear about their relationship choice and equally supportive of the child’s own relationship choices
- Explore the concepts of different, inclusive, sameness and belonging as gifts and strengths.
For the adopted child of a same-sex couple it can be important to:
- Talk through what it feels like to be different with a trusted friend or professional
- Identify their unique strengths and struggles, separate from the parents
- Feel safe to talk about wanting to/not wanting to connect with their biological parents
- Understand that different is what grows us all and that it is a gift
- Know that they can yell about it sometimes, just like any child would yell about a nerdy father or overly strict mother, or any other type of parent that frustrates, without being scared of offending in a way that puts their belonging at risk.
Some adopted children find remarkable ways to show their deep inner loyalty to their birth parents, especially if they feel judged by their adoptive parents.
For example an American couple adopted a young girl who was born of Italian parents and, in young adulthood, after an increasingly tense relationship with her adoptive Mum and Dad, she started a business and did so in a particularly ‘Italian’ way. She also learnt Italian and behaved in a way that showed her loyalty to the Italian way of doing business.
For reasons that are not fully conscious her Mum and Dad became increasingly irritated with her behaviours until she avoided them, sensing their blocking of her inner energy to connect back to her country and culture of origin.
The need to connect and to belong are so strong and if blocked will show up in all kinds of unexpected ways in adopted children. Unusual hobbies, unexpected or apparently incomprehensible work and career choices and other ways of showing the deep unconscious search for home.
Some observed effects of adoption dynamics
Many adoptees feel happy, grounded and loved twice over. This allows them to live fully and they are often resourced and generous people, generous with their affection and personal energy. For others with unresolved dynamics, life can be challenging as they search for their belonging and sense of place. This existential search can play out in different ways, including:
Many adopted children grow up to be highly skilled at fitting in in multiple different social systems. able to tune quickly into what is needed, the hidden rules of belonging, they are often popular and well liked. Inside however they may feel isoltade and like they dont belong anywhere.
When an adoptee gets too big for their place as a child with an inner sentence like: “In order to survive I must be big and be stronger than my parents / other authority figures” they may find themselves struggling to accept any authority, believing it may disappear or reject them.
Weight and eating disorders
✣ Overweight – expanding the body mass to include the missing ones. (‘Life sentence’: “I’ll remember you dear mother and father, by keeping your body wrapped around mine” or “I’ll re-include those who are excluded”)
✣ Underweight or Anorexia: trying to disappear like the parents did. (Life sentence: “I’ll disappear, just like you did. That way we can be together”)
✣ Excessively / obsessively ‘healthy’ eating. (Life sentence: “I’ll only take in umbilical cord food from mother”)
Over achieving and perfection
Aiming for ‘perfect’ is – in most people – often an inner struggle with finding a safe place in the world, belonging in the family and ancestors-of-origin. Perfectionist behaviour is often expressed particularly clearly at and through work. Over achievers in general are often trying to feel good enough to belong and so it can be particularly marked in an adoptee.
The embodied unconscious sentences in an adoptee can be something along these lines: “If I don’t get it just perfect – I will not be good enough to belong here, or anywhere.” This can become “I will struggle and overload and do and do until it’s all perfect. (Have I done enough to belong yet?”). The symptoms can range from crippling self-doubt to over-controlling, to affairs as the search for the lost connection continues.
Endings and leavings
It is common for adopted children to both attract and fear endings and any kind of leavings. If a partner, friend or business associate leaves them, especially if without warning or too fast to process this can trigger a deep sense of loss and disorientation that is linked, of course, to their primary wound. Being left, however lovingly, by their own birth parents.
This can lead to an inner ‘life sentnece’: “I build relationships, but then they leave anyway…”
Adults who have been adopted as children may give themselves away in the sense of performing for or pleasing others and so become exhausted.
They may carry within themselves a sense that whatever they do it’s never going to be enough to belong. The semi-conscious ‘life sentence’: “No matter what I do it’s never enough to belong, but I will never give up trying” may later become, in burnout: “I’ve given myself away. I’m totally exhausted”.
Under achieving and giving up
Adoptees may under achieve because they cannot find their place and so give up. This is sometimes an outer expression of an inner ‘life sentence’: “I will never belong, so why bother trying? I don’t have a place. I give up”.
Anger and rage
A powerful rage against authority figures can be seen in some adoptees. The anger is often directed, unconsciously, at the birth parents for giving them away, or the authority figures who allowed it, or who took them away. Sometimes it can be rage at the adoptive parents for taking them away, or buying them. This kind of anger or rage is often a profound grief for what was lost that has not been acknowledged or allowed to be expressed.
The adoptee who does well at work frequently over-controls because “If I don’t control everything and everybody something terrible might happen….” Of course the terrible thing they fear has already happened to them and it’s that which they may need to face and integrate.
They may, especially if entrepreneurs, gather people around them for new projects with great energy and enthusiasm and then suddenly push them away when they realise they are still not the family they seek.
No matter how successful the adoptee becomes it’s often still all about the search for connection with the parent, expressed in different ways.
Many adoptees carry an inner sense of separateness and isolation with them. This reflects their separation and isolation from their family of origin system. Those who care for them can support them by allowing them plenty of time alone to reflect and be with themselves.
When this is allowed or encouraged a deep sense of belonging – to and with themselves – can emerge.
Adoption with unresolved dynamics where the ‘giving away’ is embodied, not integrated, can lead to hoarding. For example:
“Nothing must be given away again. Everything you are given you must keep and give it its place.”
“I have already lost too much. I can’t lose anything else.”
“All of this represents those who I lost.”
“This is my family. It won’t leave me.”
Alcoholism and addiction
Any kind of adiction can be seen as a way of not being present. The opposite of being present is to disappear. The inner, unspoken ‘life sentence’ may be this: “Just like my birth parents I will disappear.” It may also be something like: “In a haze of inebriation I will find them”.
Alcoholism may also allow an adoptee to ‘become someone else who is more acceptable.’
Adoptees become very adept at searching for the truth behind the story of how things are. When this is not allowed, when they sense that it is not OK for them to truly acknowledge and include their birth parents they may show this through a keen intereset, sometimes an obsession with, conspiracy theories. This is yet another touching example of a human being searching for a true connection to their roots and sources.
Adoptees may change their name or demand to be called something different from the name given to them either at birth and/or by the adopting parents. This can be seen as a way of looking for a place to belong and trying to create it by being special, unique. A name change may also suggest that there is an inner unspoken life sentence at work, something like:
“That name belongs to the family who abandoned me, I don’t want it…” or “Who I am is not enough, I will change who I am and create someone new…”
Perhaps adoptee Laura Bambrough, who later changed her name to L’Wren Scott and who pioneered her own brand of luxury fashion, was an example of this pattern.
Relationship with money
Some adoptees have a great difficulty with money. This is especially common where there was a financial transaction at the point of adoption. Feeling that, at some level, they were ‘bought’, they may develop a uniquely challenging relationship with money, especially when it is given to them. Helping an adopted person in difficult financial circumstances should therefore be done with great sensitivity to ensure that they are strengthened, not weakened by it.
“Behind many adoptions there is loss. It’s important to include the losses in both the natural and adoptive family systems. The birth parents have lost their living child. The adoptive parents will often have lost many children through miscarriage, or lost the ability to create them. Compassion for all is important to settle the system.”
Excluding self from intimacy
For some adults who were adopted as children there is a struggle with intimacy because of the lack of trust in the parent and the source of life. This may manifest as an inability to connect deeply, fearing abandonment or exposure.
The inner ‘life sentence’ may be something like this:
“I wasn’t allowed to be close to my birth parents, so I can’t get too close to people, too intimate. If I do, they may leave me too.”
As a result adoptees may exclude themselves from relationships as a way of controlling the pain and ensuring they cannot be rejected again. The inner sentence here is often:
“If I keep my distance I will not feel that pain again.”
A need to take on impossible relationships to get the person to like them if they are just good/smart/nice/successful enough. (Unconsciously they may be wanting to get the biological parents to love them, trying to prove they are worth loving.)
The inner ‘life sentence’ may be something like:
“I wasn’t good enough to keep, so I can’t keep you either.”
Or, in an attempt to bond with birth mother:
“Just like you Mum. You couldn’t keep yours, so I won’t keep mine.”
Some adoptees feel drawn to end pregnancies for reasons that may not be fully conscious. For example:
“If I carry a child to full term I may have to give them away. I will not repeat that pattern. This must stop with me”
“I’m not good enough to create a life that might also feel not good enough.”
An adoptee may, if they struggle with identity and their natural need to belong, have an affair to try and prove to themselves they are good enough to choose. This usually deepens the sense of isolation and difficulty, especially if they get rejected or abandoned in this, another hidden or distant relationship pattern.
Adopt children of their own
Sometimes adoptees may adopt children of their own. In cases where the experience has been positive there may be the inner ‘sentences for life’, such as these:
✣ “What I received, I pass on to you with love. This is my way of honouring the gift.”
✣ “This is the way we connect and make a family. You are special and chosen, just like me.”
✣ “I will honour your parents and give them their place just like my adoptive parents did for me. All are welcome here.”
✣ “I am bringing the missing ones home.”
Under more difficult circumstances the adoptees may adopt their own children in hope of healing their own pain:
✣ “I didn’t feel chosen and I want to fix that by choosing you.”
✣ “My parents were ‘bad’ and I don’t want to pass on the ‘badness’. ”
✣ “I keep trying to find the missing ones like me, to give them a place to belong.”
Panic attacks around intimacy
Sometimes adoptees find intimacy difficult, either physically and/or emotionally. Emotionally they may keep looking for the parent and being afraid they will be hurt and abandoned again, and yet again the connection won’t be made. This can show up as a needy ‘damsel in distress’ waiting to be discovered, rescued and deeply desired. Only the fantasy and reality don’t connect. They may feel martyred or special but panicked and unwanted.
Physically adoptees may feel invaded and disappear during intimacy. Others may use this as the only way they know to connect.
In some cases, the panic may centre around wanting to connect deeply but sensing that this is not the one with whom they want to connect. As a result the connection may be felt as ‘wrong’.
✣ “I am looking for the closeness with my parent first. If I can’t have it with them, I can’t have it with you.”
✣ “I cannot be present just as they were not present.”
✣ “I need you to heal me, but then I will feel bad and you will leave because I am not good enough to keep.”
✣ “You are not the one I am looking for.”
May give up their own children for adoption to be loyal and repeat the pattern
Adoptees may repeat the pattern of their own parents. “If you couldn’t keep yours, I won’t keep mine either”
✣ “You don’t get to keep the ones you love.”
✣ “Children don’t belong/are not safe in this family.”
Giving too much/too little in relationships
An adoptee may display both of these patterns.
Giving away too much may be driven by inner ‘life sentences’ like these:
✣ “I will give you everything if you just choose/see me/allow me to belong.”
✣ “I will give you everything so you see how worthy I am.”
✣ “I will give you all my love if you just stay.”
✣ “I will prove I am irresistible.”
Giving too little can be driven by inner ‘life sentences’ like this:
✣ “I don’t have enough to share, I am wounded.”
✣ “I don’t trust you to stay.”
✣ “If I tell you/give you too much you will see I am not good enough.”
✣ “If I don’t give too much, I don’t have too much to lose.”
✣ “My trust for relationships is lost. Prove you won’t leave.”
‘I need you to heal me, but then I will feel bad and you will leave because I am not good enough to keep.’
‘I don’t trust you to stay.’
Intimacy can be difficult for an adoptee who experiences an interrupted bond that is not dealt with. They may say they don’t understand deep connections, yet deeply desire them, as though they sense that something may be missing. Their love may also be experienced as an interrupted movement that wants and keeps trying to complete but may not know how.
The one who struggles with love may struggle with wanting it but not knowing how to give what they feel they didn’t receive. For them there may be more of a wish for things to be different. In which case ‘what is’ is excluded and so what’s possible cannot come. They may also find themselves drifting from partner to partner to find the missing parent who will choose them.
The successful adoptee can be seen in the one whose birth family was included and honoured and who makes room for everyone in their heart. Everybody has a place, just as they are or were and the adoptee has learnt to expand their love to include all in the system while also developing their own personal identity and boundaries.
Many adoptees find their place within organisations and are at peace with their role, their peer relationships and their professional contribution. In other cases this is not so easy and the unmet needs to belong, or other adoptee dynamics, surface within the workplace. Understandably an inner ‘life sentence’ like “I’m not good enough to keep” can create a deep wound to the sense of self and affect self-esteem. It can however also ignite a successful career built on “I will prove I am good enough to belong” although this may also be exhausting.
Adoptees with wounding like this may be particularly attracted to organisational systems because they appear to offer a palpable sense of family, of belonging.
Burning out to belong
There are often close connections between adoption (“My own parents gave me away, so I don’t belong”) and burnout. The burnout is an outward expression of an inner ‘life sentence’, something like this: “I will show the world I do belong and have a place. I will work and work and make everything perfect and create my own place, my own origins, my own ‘family’. I am alone and so I will do this alone, by myself.”
When that doesn’t work out or get abruptly interrupted – as a result of a business, personal or relationship trauma for example – the impact on the adoptee can be catastrophic. Their entire frame of reference for living and working has gone.
Arriving in this lonely place they may then also realise that their solo efforts to create a ‘family’ have meant they’ve also separated from their origins and resources even further, having often taken a different path to their adoptive family in search of ‘home’. This is an existential loneliness, unique to adoptees, which is hard to imagine for those who know they can look back to their parents and ancestral line, and see where they come from, however disrupted that view may be.
Other examples of adoptee dynamics at work include:
As a colleague working with someone with unresolved adoptee dynamics it’s possible that the adoptee will either keep the colleague at a distance or the opposite.
✣ When the risk of closeness feels too great (in case they may be abandoned again) then an adopted person at work may simply keep everyone at a distance. This feels familiar and safe though may be experienced by others as aloofness, coldness or withdrawal.
✣ Sometimes a push/pull may be seen in team leaders who are close with their teams but take the leadership position so that they can at the same time maintain an acceptable distance.
✣ Adoptees whose difficulty with belonging is close to the surface, will often want to pull their colleagues or boss towards them. This closeness feels exciting, rewarding and maybe even a feeling of “at last, now I have a family around me I can trust”. However bringing these kinds of unmet needs into a professional system places too high a burden on it and the adoptee may be experienced by others as clingy, overbearing, needy or demanding.
✣ In other cases as the undercurrents of unmet need to belong wash around the employee’s work they may be experienced by others as having a great need for reassurance about their performance and effectiveness in role.They may obsess about anything they do ‘wrong’, fearing rejection and exclusion, and always want to please the boss (parent). During performance reviews they may have a 98% ‘exceeds expectation’ rate but may then focus only on the 2%, on what’s missing, not included.
✣ They may be experienced by those around them as brittle or volatile. This is usually due to their efforts to find their true place in the system, their family of origin system.
✣ They may be experienced as unifiers who want everyone to belong, everyone to be happy, so that they feel safe.
✣ Due to an often heightened sense of having been abandoned they can be demanding and use the word ‘betrayal’ when they feel unmet or let down. They may also cut contact when they feel betrayed.
✣ There may be a lot of downloading and treating the boss as if they were the missing parent. Adoptees sometimes confuse mutual trust and closeness with their boss with the lost bond with the parent and so feel abandoned over again when that is bruised or lost.
Individuals who have been adopted may establish a clear identity for themselves and have a great deal of energy directed towards the natural process of individuation. If this determination to be self-made is combined with ambition and a preference for control, so that they don’t get ‘displaced’ again, it can result in adoptees growing up to become innovators and pioneers.
In stories and film narratives the special qualities of an adopted child are sometimes used as the ‘secret ingredients’ to their success or special powers, like Superman. In real life individuals who were adopted may become pioneers and appear to have a special insight, almost an otherworldly ability, to see into the future.
They innovate and invent the future with little reference to what is or what was, just what could be. This great gift can, for some, become coupled with perfectionism and so they may become ‘perfectionist pioneers’ who feel a strong need to be in control. One well known example of adoption dynamics in pioneers is perhaps Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc.
“I wanted to meet my biological mother, mostly to thank her because I’m glad I didn’t end up as an abortion. She was 23 and went through a lot to have me.”
Founder, Apple Inc.
A bite of the apple
From the 2015 Danny Boyle film, ‘Steve Jobs’ (Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin)
John Sculley character, talking to Steve Jobs character backstage before the launch of the iMac: “We have 45 seconds, I want to use it to ask you a question. Why do people who were adopted feel like they were rejected, instead of selected?”
Steve Jobs: “That came out of nowhere…”
John Sculley: (referencing Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times they are a-changing’) “’Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agein’ …’ so go fuck yourself because my name is Steve Jobs and the times they are a changing…?!”
Steve Jobs: “I don’t feel rejected.”
John Sculley: “You sure?”
Steve Jobs: “Very sure”
John Sculley: “Because it’s not like the baby was born and the parents say ‘no we’re not interested in this one.’ On the other hand someone did choose you.”
Steve Jobs character looks away, only speaking after a long pause: “It’s having no control. You find out you were out of the loop when the most crucial events of your life were set in motion.” Another long pause. “As long as you have control. I don’t understand people who give it up.”
Some of the other dynamics that can appear in adoptees in the context of work and career include:
✣ They may struggle to really trust their boss because they unconsciously remind them of their parents who gave them away.
✣ They may have high levels of stress as they try to do everything perfectly, to ensure their safe belonging.
✣ They get ‘bigger’ than their boss to maintain control over who belongs in the system.
✣ They may over prepare for projects and have a tendency to do them all alone.
✣ They may move from career to career looking for ‘home’.
✣ Some adoptees develop a pattern where they challenge authority searching for the authority figure (parent) who abandoned them.
✣ Choose ‘healing’ or ‘fixing’ jobs to bring healing to their own fragmented sense of self or family.
Adoptees as founders
Because of the heightened need to feel a sense of belonging adoptees may start a business in order to create a kind of ‘safe family’. If the unmet need to belong is not met outside of the organisation then it is likely that the founder will attempt to resolve it from within.
Adoptee founders may become very demanding of themselves but also of those around them. Some of what they say is designed to test the loyalty of their staff and consultants.
✣ The unconscious search to find a family they can trust and feel safe within has many faces. One of these is a characteristic search for the ideal ‘parents’. This often shows up as the appointment of senior consultants and other ‘non-exec’ individuals who seem like just what they are searching for. They want so very much to believe in the new person that they may be blind to the reality.
As a result adoptee founders can sometimes let strangers in very close and into their inner circle too quickly. They may sometimes get taken advantage of in this way.
✣ In several cases adoptee founders have discovered that they have employed or contracted with someone who charmed their way in quickly and then breached the trust very deeply. Embezzlement, fraud or simple stealing come to light and the health of the whole system is threatened. This feels profoundly unsafe for the adoptee/founder. It has an existential quality which heightens the sense of fear and loss.
✣ Often the person entering into their circle may have the qualities the adoptee is unconsciously looking for in a parent and so they are able to get as close ‘as family’ only for the adoptee/employer to find that this will not and cannot replace the lost bond. It’s lost and that has to be faced first along with the grief that they could not feel as a very young child.
✣ For this reason it’s often very useful if they employ outside advice with recruiting until such time as selecting talent can become a well developed skill.
‘Life Sentences’ and ‘Sentences for life’
In common with other articles in this series and indeed with systemic coaching and constellations, special phrases or ‘sentences for life’ can be used to illuminate and articulate what is not being said, what needs to be expressed and then, what heals, settles or resolves.
The following example ‘sentences’ are offered only as a flavour of a facilitated workshop or one-to-one constellation process and fall into several categories:
Adoptee to biological parents
These following examples are sentences that have been used in constellations when the adopted child is reconnecting to their birth parents.
Statements of personal truth that express what is felt but not said
Adoptee to representatives for biological parents:
“I don’t know if/where I belong.”
“Growing up without you was hard.”
“I want to say I love you, but I can’t.”
“I want to say I understand but I don’t.”
“I am exhausted. Trying to belong.”
“I don’t know if, or how, I matter.”
Sentences that express unspoken truths
Adoptee to representatives for biological parents:
“I miss you.”
“I’ve been looking for you ever since.”
“I belong to you.”
Sentences that move towards resolution
Adoptee to representatives for biological parents:
“Thank you for giving me the chances you never had.”
“I take my strength from you and the rest I leave with you.”
“When I can look at and include you, I can finally find my home.”
“Please look kindly on me if I can keep my children.”
“I will always keep a place for you in my heart.”
“You will always belong to me and I will always belong to you.”
“May I have your permission to live a full and happy life?”
Biological parents to adoptee
The following are examples of sentences that have been used in constellations when representatives for adoptive parents are speaking to the adopted child.
Statements of truth
Representatives for biological parents to adopted child:
“I/we gave you away.”
“I/we couldn’t raise a child.”
“You were taken away from me.”
“We wanted a better chance for you.”
“Even though we/I wanted to keep you we/I did it to protect you.”
“My dear child, I’ve missed you more than I can say.”
“It would please us greatly if you would live a full and happy life.”
Sentences that heal, soften and move towards a resolution
Representatives for biological parents to adopted child:
“I am happy when you do well.”
“When you do well, I feel like I did something right.”
“When you thrive, I grow stronger.”
Adoptee to adoptive parents
The following examples of sentences can be useful when integrating adoptive parents, acknowledging their role and contribution whilst also acknowledging that they are not the birth mother and father.
Sentences of unspoken truths
Adoptee to representatives for adoptive parents:
“I miss my Mother and Father.”
“I’m frightened to look at my Mother and Father in case I lose you too.”
“I don’t want to have to choose.”
“I work so hard because I’m scared you might give me away too.”
“I don’t know where I belong.”
“I drink/do drugs/fail to disappear, like my parents did.”
“I push you away before you give me away.”
“I work hard to make sure you think I am worth the investment.”
“I watch you closely for signs that I am not good enough.”
“When you are angry I am scared you will give me away.”
Sentences that acknowledge and move to resolution
Adoptee to representatives for adoptive parents:
“Thank you for giving me a home when they couldn’t.”
“ I have more not less.”
“ I choose you all.”
“ My birth parents have their place with me and you have yours.”
“ I see what you have done for me and I am grateful.”
“ You are not less in my eyes or in my heart.”
“Thank you for teaching me how to love/be enough/be happy.”
“When you give my biological parents a place in your hearts I feel safe.”
Biological parents to adoptive parents
The following examples are of sentences that have been used in constellations to support the acknowledgment of the natural order in the system.
Statements of truth
Representatives for biological parents to representatives of adoptive parents:
“This is my child.”
“I am the parent of this child.”
“I gave my child away and the consequences are mine.”
“This is my place and that is yours.”
“I am the birth mother, you the adoptive mother.”
“I wish I could have kept him/her, but I couldn’t.”
Sentences that soften and move towards resolution
Representatives for biological parents to representatives of adoptive parents:
“Thank you for raising my child when I couldn’t.”
“Please keep a place for me/us in your heart.”
“Thank you for what you did for my child.”
“I gave my child life, you gave them love.”
“Thank you for giving my child a place to belong.”
Adoptive parents to biological parents
The following kinds of sentences may be heard when representatives for the adoptive parents face the birth parents in a constellation:
Representatives for adoptive parents to representatives of biological parents:
Statements of truth
“You gave my child the gift of life.”
“You are my child’s parent/s.”
“We were frightened you may take this child away from us.”
“We are frightened that they may leave us if they look for you.”
Sentences that soften and move towards resolution:
“Thank you for giving us your child to raise.”
“We see and include you.”
“The path between you and your child is open.”
“That is your place, this is ours.” / “There are different places for each of us”.
“You gave your child life so we could give them love.”
“Thank you for letting us experience parenthood.”
“Because of you, we got to raise a child. Thank you.”
Adoptive parents to child
The following are examples of sentences that may be heard when representatives for the adoptive parents face the adopted child, now an adult, in a constellation:
Representatives for adoptive parents to adoptee:
Statements of truth
“We asked for you” / “We chose you”
“Sometimes we are frightened you will leave.”
“We don’t always feel good enough for you.”
“When you are angry or sad, sometimes we feel not good enough to reach you.”
“We want to belong just as much as you do…”
“Arguments happen in biological families too…”
“Arguments and anger are not the same thing as rejection…”
Representatives for adoptive parents to adoptee:
Sentences of resolution, that can create more freedom for the adoptee:
“Your parents are first, we are second.”
“You weren’t just given to us, we chose you.”
“You are a gift we chose very carefully.”
“You don’t have to choose between us.”
“We won’t give you away if you look at your biological parents.”
“We would be delighted if you grew up to be like your Mother and Father.”
“‘Biological’ doesn’t make kids ‘good enough’.”
“If you have no sense of your parents, look in the mirror.”
“Your talent must have come from somewhere!”
“You honour your parents every day when you live well.”
“When you do well, we feel like we did something right.”
“We honour the great sacrifice your birth parents made.”
“We will always be your adoptive parents, we can never take the place of your birth parents. You are free to choose us both. We are all here, behind you.”
This article was authored by John Whittington in consultation with Judy Wilkins-Smith.
The articles in this series do not offer specific advice but stimulus for your own reflections. They provide only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic coaching or constellation workshop. This way of looking and working can be combined with others to give an understanding of the human condition. The writing is always a work in progress as the authors continue to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.
© Life Love Leadership
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